Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hamblet's famous blue bricks

Today it is difficult to picture the former GWR Park on Faringdon Road without it's splendid railings, yet it is a mere four years ago since the installation of the new ironmongering. A £200,000 developer funded project was announced in March 2009 and the final section along Church Place was finished in the summer of 2010.

The park project generated an interest in the distinctive Victorian blue brick capping on the walls stamped with the imprint Joseph Hamblet from West Bromwich and canal historian Janet Flanagan contacted me about a former boatman Bill Cutler.

Bill was born in 1895, a third generation boatman, and in 1969 the Advertiser interviewed him. He told of working on his father's two horse-drawn narrow boats called Lea and Rea, bringing bricks and brewery sugar from his native West Bromwich to Swindon.

"It was a lovely life," he told the Advertiser. "Peaceful, yet you were doing some hard work."

The Cutler Family connections in the Midlands saw them perfectly placed to transport the blue bricks manufactured at Joseph Hamblet's West Bromwich brickworks.

Like Bill, Joseph Hamblet worked in the family firm where the blue engineering bricks were a speciality. In the 1890s the firm was producing more than 400,000 bricks a week, among them the ones used to cap the walls around the GWR Park.

Bill recalled bringing the bricks down from the Midlands, through Gloucester and on to the Thames and Severn Canal at Stroud. Turning off at Latton the blue bricks made their way along the North Wilts Canal, eventually joining the Wilts and Berks Canal.

The Staffordshire blue bricks, made from the local Etruria Marl red clay, had a high crushing strength and were much favoured by civil engineers. Used in bridge, canal and railway construction, the blue bricks were the Victorian equivalent of reinforced concrete. These impermeable bricks were also ideal for parapet copings and capping walls and apart from a minimal amount of damage those used on the GWR Park walls remain in excellent condition, more than 100 years later.

No record remains of how large the Cutler shipment of Hamblet's blue bricks was and in 1969 Bill made no mention of the GWR Park but said that family memory was they were destined for Clarence Street School.

When Joseph Hamblet senior died in 1894 his grandson took over the business and in 1898 it became a limited company, the Hamblet Blue Brick Co.

Labour and fuel shortages during the Great War marked the end of the Hamblet family business and Bill was later employed to fill in the Swindon canal junction through which he had travelled so many times.

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